Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)
Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)
Benedictine abbess and visionary who, in her prose, poetry, and musical composition, gave a strong and imageful voice to divine revelation. Name variations: Saint Hildegard, Hildegarde, or Hildegarda; Hildegard von Bingen; Hildegarde of Rupertsberg. Born in 1098 in Bermersheim near Alzey (Rheinhessen), Germany; died in Rupertsberg near Bingen on September 17, 1179; daughter of noble parents, Hildebert and Mechthild.
Had first illuminative vision (c. 1101); was offered to God as a tithe (the tenth child of her parents) and placed in the care of the anchorite Jutta at the monastery at Disibodenberg (c. 1106); made monastic profession in the community that had formed around Jutta (c.1113); at death of Jutta, succeeded her as magistra of the community (1136); in response to divine command, reluctantly began to record her visions in what would become Scivias (1141); Pope Eugenius III (r. 1145–1153) blessed her visionary writing (1147–48); moved community to Rupertsberg (1147–50); established daughter house at Eibingen (c. 1165); Rupertsberg community placed under interdict (1178).
Scivias (1141–51); Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (1150s); Lingua ignota (1150s); Ordo virtutum (perf. 1152?); Liber vitae meritorum (1158–63), Physica (1150s); Causae et curae (1150s); Liber divinorum operum (1163–70).
In her remarkable life as a Benedictine nun and abbess, Hildegard of Bingen raised a strong voice of spiritual vision that found an outlet in numerous prose works (visionary, scientific, and hagiographic), public preaching, liturgical poetry, musical composition, and a voluminous correspondence that brought popes and monarchs within her sphere. The breadth of her output, or, as she would more likely have put it, the breadth of what God worked through her, is impressive by any measure, but especially so for a 12th-century woman. Although we generally would place her work in distinct categories—poetry, music, science, visionary prose, etc.—her world view brought them into unity. In her Scivias, she writes: "God, who made all things by His will created them so that His name would be known and glorified, showing in them not just the things that are visible and temporal, but also the things that are invisible and eternal." In other words, to her the fullness of creation participates in the praise of God and reveals the immaterial and transcendent in the form of the material and immanent.
Oh humans, look at the human being! For it contains heaven and earth and other creatures in itself, and is one form, and all things hide in it.
—Hildegard of Bingen, Causae et curae
From the age of 15, Hildegard lived as a professed nun, and monasticism offers an important context in which to view both her creative work and her life as a woman. The center of the Benedictine life, in Hildegard's day as in our own, is the Opus Dei, the liturgical round of offices (prayer services) sung or recited periodically through the day and night. Relying heavily on the singing of the Latin Psalter (the Biblical book of Psalms), the office required at least rudimentary literacy and musical skill, generally learned by nuns during their novitiate, if not earlier. Hildegard was explicit that her first monastic guardian, the solitary Jutta of Sponheim , was "no scholar" and that her own education was limited. Her Vita, rich in autobiographical passages, records that she did not know how to decipher the texts of the Bible (Vita, I/1); she states as well that although she composed and sang chant, she "had never studied neums [any of various symbols representing from one to four notes] or any chant notation at all" (Vita, I/2). Nevertheless, we can assume that basic liturgical skills were part of her early training. Moreover, the convent traditionally supplied a place wherein women could pursue the liturgical arts and other learning free of the social conventions that would restrict these activities in the secular world. For example, Hildegard's activity as a composer found both a natural outlet and a rich nurture within the conventual liturgy that it would have been denied outside the cloister.
Within the world of the convent, various aspects of Hildegard's womanhood created interesting counterpoints. Presumably the monastic ideal of humility was especially appropriate to medieval "brides of Christ," but, at the same time, monastic formation well equipped some nuns for strong leadership. Hildegard's vigorous homiletics evidences her potent leadership in the world of both high-born, powerful men as well as women. Although as a woman she regularly acknowledged her weakness, this had the effect of authenticating her vision; as Barbara Newman suggests in her introduction to Scivias, her disclaimers "are meant to persuade readers that, because the author is not 'wise according to worldly standards,' her weakness and foolishness have been empowered by God alone."
It is important to note as well Hildegard's appropriation (along with male writers) of female imagery to describe God. For example, Hildegard represents the dual nature of Jesus, fully divine and fully human, by gender: "Man … signifies the divinity of the Son of God and woman his humanity" (Liber divinum operum). Strikingly, in the third vision of Scivias, the "Omnipotent God, incomprehensible in His majesty and inestimable in His mysteries" appears in the likeness of an egg. Elsewhere, claiming an unsurprising resonance with the visionary evangelist St. John, she compares her "inspired" knowledge to that which John received when he "sucked from the breast of Jesus the most profound revelation" (Vita, II/2).
By her own account, Hildegard began seeing illuminative visions in earliest childhood. However, it was not this as much as the fact that she was the tenth child of her parents that led to her being given to God as a tithe, placed in the care of the anchorite (or religious recluse) Jutta at the monastery at Disibodenberg. (Interestingly, infant oblation [the act of making an offering] would be renounced in the 12th century, and Hildegard, in later writings, is critical of the offering of a child without its informed consent.) Jutta's anchorhold would eventually spawn a community of women, professed nuns with Jutta as their magistra (abbess); Hildegard took her vows at the age of 15. We have little information concerning the next 20 years or so of her life, although the familiar patterns of the Benedictine day were surely characteristic. Upon the death of Jutta in 1136, Hildegard succeeded her as spiritual leader and magistra of the community.
It would not be long before Hildegard would reluctantly accede to the divine command to make her visions public. Although she admitted to "artlessly" speaking of them in her youth, prior to 1141 her visions were generally private, shared only with Jutta and the monk Volmar (a monk of Disibodenberg who would later act as her secretary). However, in 1141, she "heard a voice from Heaven" saying, "Cry out therefore, and write thus"—a command that brought forth Scivias, the first volume of her visionary trilogy. (Two other volumes, the Liber vitae meritorum and the Liber divinorum operum followed in the next decades.) The opening "Declaration" in Scivias makes several points clear. It asserts that the book was divinely commanded and that it proceeded from inspired or infused knowledge:
Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain, and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast, not like a burning but like a warming flame, as the sun warms anything its rays touch. And immediately I knew the meaning of the exposition of the Scriptures.
Another point that emerges is Hildegard's reluctance to begin writing, a reluctance that she embodied in a characteristic sickness that dogged her throughout much of her life and had a way of emerging at particularly important times. That she was so often ill is an odd counterpoint to her longevity as an octogenarian (a person between 80 and 90 years old). Several, including the prolific neurologist-writer Oliver Sacks, have suggested that her visions were a phenomenon of migraine, a "scintillating scotoma."
In an important letter (translated by Peter Dronke) to Guibert of Gembloux written late in her life, Hildegard describes her visionary state, telling him of the illuminative quality of the visions, the wakeful, non-ecstatic way in which she receives them, and the existence of two levels of illumination, one rarer and more mystically affective than the other:
Since my infancy … I have always seen this vision in my soul…. And as God wills, in this vision my spirit mounts upwards, into the height of the firmament and into changing air, and dilates itself among different nations…. And because I see these things in such a manner, for this reason I also behold them … in created things. But I hear them not with my physical ears, nor with my heart's thoughts, nor do I perceive them by bringing any of my five senses to bear—but only in my soul, my physical eyes open, so that I never suffer their failing in loss of consciousness…. The brightness that I see … I call … 'the shadow of the living brightness.' And as sun, moon and stars appear [mirrored] in water, so Scriptures, discourses, virtues, and some works of men take form for me and are reflected radiant in this brightness…. And in that same brightness I sometimes … see another light, which I call 'the living light,' … and for the time I do see it, all sadness and all anguish is taken from me.
The light which characterizes her vision assumes more specific connotations in her writing. To pick one of many examples, in Scivias, Jesus is seen as "the sun of justice with the brilliance of burning charity, of such great glory that every creature is illumined by the brightness of His light."
Scivias was completed in 1151 with the assistance of the monk Volmar. Not surprisingly, Volmar's editorial assistance was divinely sanctioned. Hildegard records that in a vision she was instructed that:
When there is a revelation to you from on high in familiar human form, you shall not describe this in the Latin tongue yourself, for you are not gifted with familiarity in it. Rather, let one who has a skill for polishing language finish it in a form fitting and pleasing to the human ear.
Scivias is a long work in three parts treating the "Creator and Creation," the "Redeemer and Redemption," and the "History of Salvation," the latter concluding with a number of chant texts, the "Symphony of the Blessed," and an allegorical play of vice and virtue, later to be expanded into the Ordo virtutum. The breadth of Scivias is substantially enriched by the manuscript illuminations that depict and accompany each vision. (The original illuminated manuscript disappeared in World War II, although a modern facsimile made between 1927 and 1933 survives.) A number of the illuminations interestingly feature the mandala-like images of holy circles and wheels. Such images make up an important part of Hildegard's mystical vocabulary, not only in Scivias, but also in the poetic texts of her Symphonia. There, for instance, Mary addresses Jesus: "O most beloved Son,/ whom I bore in my womb/ by the might of the circling wheel/ of holy divinity." Similarly, virgins are hymned: "O most noble verdure,/ you who are rooted in the sun and who shine in bright serenity/ in a wheel/ that no earthly eminence comprehends."
The decade during which Scivias was being completed was an eventful one for Hildegard. It was during this time, for instance, that Pope Eugenius III, while attending a convocation of bishops at Trier (1147–48), became acquainted with Hildegard's visionary writings. With the encouragement of Bernard of Clairvaux, he confirmed and blessed her writing, a confirmation that was all the more valuable given her status as a woman.
Also at this time, Hildegard, guided by a vision, decided to relocate her community to the more austere environment of Rupertsberg near Bingen. The relocation was difficult for a number of reasons. One was that the male monastic community at Disibodenberg was reluctant to lose their celebrated female associate. (The abbot's resistance was ultimately overcome when Hildegard suffered a period of paralysis and "from then on he allowed no further opposition to the divine command, lest he himself incur something worse" [ Vita, I/2]. Moreover, the move proved unpopular with some within her community as well. Hildegard's nuns, like their magistra, were all high-born, and some were reluctant to forgo the comforts to which their birth entitled them. As the Vita records, "For just as the children of Israel taxed Moses, so did they; shaking their heads at me and saying: 'What good is this, that wealthy young noblewomen should move from a place in which they lacked nothing to such penury as this?'" (Vita, II/2). (The elitism of Hildegard's convent is the subject of an interesting exchange of letters between herself and Tengswich of Andernach.)
In the wake of the move to Rupertsberg, Richardis von Stade , a nun whom Hildegard "deeply cherished," "just as Paul cherished Timothy," left the community to become abbess of Bassum. Hildegard's response to this perceived "defection" was extreme and has elicited interesting comment, including suspicions of "megalomania" and using her "prophetic persona savagely and overbearingly." Hildegard was vigorously certain that Richardis' move was not the will of God; when informed by the archbishop of Mainz that she must relent, Hildegard fierily accused him of simony. And appeals even to the pope proved to no avail. Sadly, Richardis' planned return to Hildegard and the community at Rupertsberg (perhaps for only a temporary visit) never materialized, owing to her premature death. It is a tragic event in a life full of suffering. In the Vita, Hildegard prefaces her account of Richardis' leaving with: "Such has been [God's] way in all my affairs since my infancy, to allow me no unruffled joy in this life, by which my mind could become puffed up" (Vita, II/2). It was tragic in the pain the relationship occasioned, and tragic that Richardis' death precluded the healing of the rift. But it was also a vivid instance documenting the complexity of Hildegard's temperament.
Despite the fact that the 1150s began traumatically for Hildegard, the decade was an extremely fruitful one; indeed her suffering may well have fed her creativity. Writing of her propensity for illness, her early biographer Theodoric records: "as much as she weakened in her outer self, so did she grow stronger in her inner self, with the spirit of knowledge and fortitude. For as her body wasted away, the warmth of her spirit, marvelous to relate, was kindled" (Vita, I/1). Thus, the trials of the relocation of the community and the loss of Richardis may too have "kindled" her spirit. Her two scientific works, Physica and the medical Causae et Curae, were written in the 1150s, as was the Lingua ignota, a collection of words mixing German and Latin to create a private language. Her sung morality play, the Ordo virtutum, was likely performed for the 1152 consecration of the monastery church at Rupertsberg. A lengthy allegorical music drama of the virtues, the soul, and the devil, it is by far the earliest extant morality play. Moreover, sung within the context of conventual life, it reminds us of the degree to which female musical activity might aspire. In this case, we can safely presume that all of the sung parts were taken by Hildegard's nuns; the devil's role, significantly a spoken part, was perhaps taken by the monk Volmar.
Hildegard's liturgical chants—sequences, hymns, antiphons, and responsories—were collected probably in the late 1150s in a work entitled Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum, with subsequent additions after her death. The poetry of her texts is richly imageful and rhapsodic; the music is constructed of varying formulas sometimes deployed over a strikingly wide vocal range. Not surprisingly, the melodic style of the chants partakes of a sympathetic resonance with the rhapsodic nature of the poetry.
Hildegard's views on music emerge with particular force in correspondence with prelates of the Diocese of Mainz. In 1178, Hildegard's community was placed under an interdict in a dispute regarding the burial of a former excommunicate and were thus denied the singing of the office. Her letter in response is a remarkable reflection on music. Music is seen not only as an incitement to devotion, but a link to the praise of the angels as well. Satan's action is characterized as the removal of the human from out of the celestial harmony (hence his spoken role in the Ordo). Moreover, the perfection of bliss in Eden is embodied in the music of Adam's voice. Adam, "still innocent before his fault, had no little kinship with the sounds of the angels' praises…. [I]n Adam's voice before he fell there was the sound of every harmony and the sweetness of the whole art of music. And if Adam had remained in the condition in which he was formed, human frailty could never endure the power and the resonance of that voice." Hildegard's letter thus confronts the prelates with a dramatic sense of just what it is of which they have deprived her: the interdict was not just a silencing of liturgical song, but a painful exile from the symphony of creation. The prelates remained unmoved, though the archbishop, in Rome at the time, brought the interdict to a halt.
Hildegard died the following year. Her posthumous reputation was furthered by two vitae. One, begun prior to her death, was by Godfrey, the provost of Disibodenberg, and Theodoric of Echternach Abbey; the second was by Guibert of Gembloux, a member of Hildegard's circle in the last few years of her life. Canonization procedures were begun in both the 13th and 14th centuries, though they were never brought to successful completion. Nevertheless, Hildegard is venerated in the Roman Martyrology on September 17.
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Steven Plank , Professor of Musicology, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio